let’s paint a common scenario for me.  i’m in a relatively public place, and i hear some people conversing.  they are not particularly noisy, and i am not particulary eavesdropping, but the content of the conversation spills over and makes its way into my mind.

for many people this is a daily occurrence.  my friends living in new york or london, riding on public transportation, often complain about hearing things they wish they could have tuned out on.  if you go to the grocery store or drop by 7-11 or attend a sports event or go running next to a high school, you experience this as well.

now change the scenario above slightly.  one of the benefits i enjoy here in hong kong is that many people speak a language that i don’t understand.  i can pick up words and phrases here and there if i focus, but for the most part it fades to an unintelligible buzz that leaves me to my own thoughts (or ipod).  however, i do speak two less common languages that are also spoken by a significant portion of the population.  i would venture that it is extremely rare for a non-native to speak these languages (they are ranked 51 and 70 among world languages, according to wikipedia).  therefore, speakers of these languages routinely assume that someone who looks like me has no idea what they are talking about.

this is the interesting part.  did you ever have a secret language you could use in public that was only know to the parties to the conversation?  it’s kind of fun – you can say things in relative privacy right in front of other people.  my brother and sister and i figured this out when we were teenagers and were able to speak french without the parents understanding what was going on.  now imagine that while having your “private” conversation, you suddenly find out that the person you thought was ignorant of your words was actually completely comprehending everything you said.  ohhh, could that be a little bit embarassing?  it all depends on what you were talking about.

when you are outside of these conversations, i think you almost always assume that the people are talking about you.  in my experience, it’s about 10% of the time in reality.  so the question is…do i say anything?  do i admit that i speak and understand all of what’s going on?  do i wait until the conversation starts to become potentially embarassing?  or do i just pretend that i don’t understand and secretly laugh?

what are your thoughts?

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